Haymarket Opera offers fascinating time travel with charmingly retro “Orphee”

Sat Feb 25, 2012 at 12:53 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Peter van de Graaff (center) as Apollo, Marc Molomot (right) as Orphee and Carrie Henneman Shaw as Euridice in Charpentier’s “La Descente d’Orphee aux Enfers” at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Wendy Benner

The Haymarket Opera Company managed to sell out both weekend performances of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orphee aux Enfers. Granted, its home at Mayne Stage in Rogers Park is an intimate venue, but that’s still quite an accomplishment for a fledgling company in its inaugural season, presenting an obscure French Baroque opera no less. A third performance has been added at 10 p.m. Saturday, and for anyone with a specialist interest in the genre or operatic repertorial byways, this is not an event to miss.

Founded by cellist-conductor Craig Trompeter, Haymarket Opera debuted last fall with Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. The company is dedicated to performing early and Baroque opera in an authentic manner. That means on period instruments and with singing, acting and staging conventions in an historically informed manner or as close to what we know of what the tradition must have been like.

The company’s mission to present Baroque opera in authentic style provides a kind of musicological time travel. Sitting in the sunken main floor of the 1912 vaudeville house, one can imagine being in the stalls of a 17th century theater and the production proved consistently imaginative, mostly well executed and delightful.

For its second and final production of this debut season, Haymarket Opera chose Charpentier’s concise setting of the much-mined mythic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. In Charpentier’s setting, Eurydice’s part is small, the nymph expiring not long into Act 1. Much of the lightish action centers instead on Orpheus, as he pines for Eurydice, descends to the underworld to convince Pluto to release her, and charms the accursed inhabitants with his lyre. The score is representative of the genre with attractive, lilting dance-inflected music of the era.

The voices by and large proved adequate rather than outstanding, yet it is the cumulative theatrical effect of the staging that is the real show. Directed in an informed yet unpedantic manner by Ellen Hargis, a noted Baroque vocalist herself, the singers emote with stylized theatrical gestures. The movements seem a bit stagy at first for those used to a more naturalistic form of opera acting, but one soon becomes accustomed, and taken in by the charmingly retro style. Hargis also knocked down the fourth wall effectively with clever use of the Mayne Stage’s aisles for entrances and exits bringing the singers in close proximity to the audience.

David Mayernik’s beautiful, evocative painted panels, Meriem Bahri’s costumes and Carlos Fittante’s graceful choreography added to the evening’s pleasures.

Photo: Wendy Benner

While the performance was largely successful, there were a few oddities. Whatever the historic justification, having one of the male chorus members in drag as one of the nymphs provoked titters from the audience, the singer’s uncanny resemblance to Nathan Lane presenting some unwonted La Cage aux Folles parallels. Also Marc Molomot proved an unprepossessing hero, making a decidedly portly and middle-aged Orphee. Even in highly stylized Baroque opera there should be some degree of verisimilitude.

That apart, Molomot has the lion’s share of stage time, and sang and acted capably. His high tenor is rather wan with tonal dryness, but Molomot sang sensitively and often sweetly in his airy, delicate arias.

The part of Euridice is small and Carrie Henneman Shaw was accomplished as the ill-fated heroine. Peter van de Graaff brought authority and a firm baritone to Pluton and, briefly, Apollo. Julia Davids was a superb Proserpine, showing a lovely soprano and ease on stage in this brief role. In their various manifestations, the small chorus sang solidly individually and collectively.

But it is the antique cool of the presentation that is the key attraction. The performance was preceded with a brief ballet with two masked dancers (choreographer Fittante and Robin Gilbert) presenting a mimed preview of the story to come, set to music for two bass viols by Marin Marais. An arrangement of Marais’ chaconne by David Douglass ended the unfinished (or lost) final scene effectively.

With the occasional rough edge lending some apt asperity, Trompeter skillfully directed the small period ensemble from the cello with a fine sense of the music’s dance rhythms and dramatic flow.

Tickets are still available for Saturday’s 10 p.m. performance. haymarketopera.org; 773-381-4554. Haymarket Opera will open its fall season August 31 and September 1 with Handel’s Clori, Tirsi e Fileno.

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